Monday, December 29, 2003

I ran into an article the other day by Udo Schaefer, called Loyalty to the Covenant and Critical Thought I actually have a warm spot for Schaefer -- he’s one Baha’i writer that I can say was an influence on me when I was enrolled, but then he’ll go and say things that irritate the hell out of me. Most of the article I agree with -- he quite eloquently speaks about anti-intellectualism in the Baha’i community, and its dangers. He even talks about how accusations against intellectuals that they are “against the Covenant” are responsible for the dissidence online, although I note that he carefully avoids saying that the fundamentalists that caused this are not just run-of-the-mill ignoramuses, but in powerful positions in the administration itself. The situation of the narrow-minded accusing Baha’i liberals of being uncovenantal has been around for a long time; what made things explode (or as he puts it, made liberals “throw the baby out with the bath water”) in 1996 was that the UHJ started making the same accusation. Then, those such as myself who were appalled by the situation became equally “uncovenantal”, because the “infallible” UHJ made these judgements. A Baha’i can treat fundamentalists as an irritant to be put up with, until the point comes when they are directly threatening you with administrative authority behind them.

What irritated me was his characterization of liberals as being “in danger of ignoring the revelation”, and “influenced by the Zeitgeist”. I guess I’ve been in too many Internet discussions where fundies pull out the line that “you can’t pick and choose”, and implying that liberals are just not all that serious about Baha’u’llah. I actually had one of them tell me that I ought to just find a liberal Christian church, so I can do what I want -- as if to be liberal means that it doesn’t matter at all what religion you sign up for because you’re sort of creating your own anyway. That sort of attitude just drives me bananas.

I don’t know of any group of people that have taken the Writings more seriously, and examined them more closely than Baha’i liberals. I don’t hear anyone saying “La-di-da, that’s out of date; let’s pitch it”. The liberal arguments are a whole lot more thoughtful that Schaefer gives them credit for. The prime example is his discussion of the liberal tolerance of homosexuality. The impression I get is that he can’t even have read the online arguments about this -- he’s just shaking his head over how anyone could possible ignore the plain prohibition against homosexual acts in the Writings. First of all, even if one conceded that homosexual activity is against Baha’i law, there is absolutely nothing in that law that requires that gays be treated as many have been in the community. Silly myths abound -- Baha’u’llah is supposed to have called homosexuality an abomination (that’s Leviticus, not the Aqdas), or that His pen broke at the very mention of such a horrible sin. Baha’u’llah did not even set a punishment for it -- the Baha’i community could make it entirely a matter of personal conscience if it chose. As a Baha’i, I am required to abide by Baha’i law -- but I am not required to lecture, harass, shun, or otherwise mistreat others who have difficulty with the law, or who may disagree with my understanding of it. Schaeffer characterizes the very “support” liberal Baha’is give to homosexuals as a violation of Baha’i law. It isn’t against Baha’i law to show sympathy and tolerance towards people.

Secondly, Baha’u’llah did not prohibit “homosexuality”; He prohibited two specific acts: pederasty, and sodomy. And those two passages are the only mention of the subject in the Writings, as far as I know. Schaeffer quotes the passage that prohibits sodomy as a kind of absolute proof of his position, but “sodomy” is not equivalent to “homosexuality”. For one thing, female homosexuals don’t commit “sodomy” or use “boys“ for their sexual enjoyment, so Baha’u’llah didn’t say a single word about them. From what I can tell, the Arabic term “livat” is just as flexible in meaning as the term sodomy is in English. In California law, a person who commits sodomy has specifically committed forcible anal intercourse, and the victim could be either male or female. So, the bottom line is, it isn’t that cut-and-dried, and anyone who has followed liberal arguments on this ought to know that. Other than those two brief references, there are letters written on Shoghi Effendi’s behalf, which I think are very problematic from the standpoint of Baha’i law. I have a real hard time seeing letters by secretaries as authoritative interpretation. Now, I do think that they reflect Shoghi Effendi’s opinion, namely that all homosexuality is immoral. However, there is not a solid basis for a blanket prohibition in the Writings themselves. I regard it as a thing that the community just has to hash out -- but there are real arguments on the liberal side, not just the “Zeitgeist”. It’s a matter of looking at what the Writings say, and even more importantly, what they *don’t* say.

Another statement that bugged me was this: A theologian is not merely a student of religion; he is committed to his faith. He who pursues religious studies just for their own sake ... and sacrifices his spiritual ties and commitment to the revelation on the altar of studies, offers no benefits, but only causes damage. Now just exactly what is that supposed to mean? Religious studies is certainly a legitimate field of inquiry, and simply because one writes about it from an academic point of view is not a sign of lack of commitment to one’s own religion. Not everyone has to be a theologian or apologist.

The other thing that bothered me is that he claimed that “the view has been voiced that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’ was not infallible because he never declared that he was infallible.” I don’t know where this is from. Most of the discussion about infallibility online has been over that of the UHJ and Guardian. When ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s infallibility is discussed, it is usually in the context of his statements that contradict what we now know about science and history. But the weirdest statement of all is this one: A teaching authority only makes sense when it is infallible, when truth is fixed in a binding manner. Otherwise, there would be no authority at all, and everyone could be their own “Pope”. This is plain ridiculous. You don’t have to be infallible to be have authority -- I think this is a big mistake Baha’is make, and it’s behind a lot of the attitude fundamentalists have. There is something in between infallibility, and everyone “being Pope” -- namely, a distinction between authoritative representations of the Baha’i Faith’s position, and opinions given by individual believers. Shoghi Effendi himself said that religious truth is relative, so why does it have to be “fixed in a binding manner”? This fear of the individual somehow making himself God crops up regularly in Schaeffer’s writing; it’s a real bugaboo for him, and seems frankly bizarre in a paper that is otherwise promoting the use of reason and an atmosphere of tolerance.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

I found this yesterday on a blog called Psycho Sensei:

From Knox News .com

Religion can be trouble in workplace

By PAMELA REEVES, Anderson, Reeves & Cooper P.A.
December 21, 2003

A case filed in federal court in Nashville two weeks ago illustrates why employers need to make sure their employees' religious beliefs remain outside the workplace.

The case was filed by a woman who adheres to the Baha'i faith, a sect that believes several religious figures are equally authentic messengers of God.

The lawsuit alleges that when she was fired, she was told that she was being fired before the Christmas season because her mere presence in the workplace would ruin her co-worker's holidays.

The plaintiff also alleged that other co-workers told her that they were praying for her soul and that the office manager gave her a framed picture of Jesus. She claims that her termination notice contained a letter from her supervisor that said, "Realize why Jesus Came. Recognize his Holy Name. Receive Jesus Christ into your heart. Rely on Jesus everyday."

While it is too early to predict the outcome of this lawsuit, it is safe to say that the actions of the co-workers have, at a minimum, created a potential for liability.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment based on religion in companies with 15 or more employees. The Tennessee Human Rights Act prohibits religious discrimination for employers with eight or more employees.

It is difficult for employees to realize that their desire to share their religious beliefs with co-workers can be a form of religious discrimination. Many have strong religious convictions that they should share their faith with others. Unfortunately, this type of behavior in the workplace can create concerns.

Companies should make sure that their supervisors are aware that attempts to impose religious beliefs can be a violation of law. In particular, supervisors should be trained to avoid this type of behavior personally and to take affirmative action to make sure that co-workers are not harassing other employees.

This is not to say that one can never discuss religion in the workplace. It is fine to invite someone to attend church or to answer questions about religious beliefs. The problems occur when an employee begins to harass a co-worker about religious beliefs or makes religion such a focus that it begins to affect the terms and conditions of employment.

While the Christmas season is definitely a time for many of us to take stock of our religious beliefs, it is also a time to remember that those beliefs are personal. The workplace is simply not a pulpit.

It may be difficult in this part of the country to accept this fact, but the New Year will be a lot happier if the company and its employees are not having to spend their time defending a religious discrimination lawsuit.

Pamela Reeves is a partner in the Knoxville law firm Anderson, Reeves & Cooper P.A. Because factual situations vary, competent legal counsel should be consulted for individual advice.

As someone from the blog commented -- this kind of thing no doubt happens all the time, but it's rare for somebody to do anything about it. It actually is fairly common for a Baha'i to get some negative feedback, sometimes even from families. I think it's even worse because most of us have chosen our religion -- people would be a bit more polite if it was something we were raised in.

Actually, I had an employer who used to razz me about being a Baha'i, but it was because he himself was an athiest -- he didn't like anybody's religion. And I think he just liked getting under my skin. He was sort of a curmudgeonly old guy, and even though I generally didn't argue with him, I've never been one who could keep my feelings off my face.

What I find irritating about fundie Christians is that they talk to you like you've never heard of Jesus, or read the Bible, or thought about the issues involved at all. Most Baha'is come from some kind of Christian background, and thought deeply before declaring -- more deeply, I daresay than many that answer the emotional appeal of the "altar call".

However, for people to do this at work is just totally out of line. In fact, I can't believe the employer didn't think about the fact that there was real potential for a lawsuit here. But then, I think a lot of small employers think they can just get away with it; big companies will generally have policies about discriminations -- with small ones, it just might be one guy making a decision based on whatever biases he happens to have.

I once was turned down for a job because, at the time, I was young and hadn't had my kids yet. I don't think he even looked at my resume. This guy was tired of women taking off because of pregnancy, and was openly looking for someone who had already had children and was unlikely to have more. This, of course, is illegal as hell, and I griped about it to the agent who had sent me. Of course, like most people, I didn't do anything about it. I often wondered, though, if the person he hired lasted longer than it took me to have kids.
I think I know what the problem is: I'm tired of dealing with people, at least cyber-people. I took about six weeks off recently, due to personal circumstances, and I'm still tired of them. I'm tired of the hostility, the games, the political maneuvering, the hidden agendas, the pettyness. I'm tired of people trying to use me. I'm tired of being nice to people who I think are slightly nuts. I'm tired of worrying about whether I've said or done the wrong thing.

So, I think maybe I'll just try blogging for a while -- just talk to the ether. Maybe later tonight or tomorrow I'll talk about those articles I found.
Yesterday, I was surfing, and ran into two articles that I thought about posting or commenting on -- but couldn't decide where to do it. So, I ended up not doing either.

I've talked a lot about how the rise of cyberspace has affected Baha'i discourse, but in the last couple of years, the expansion of cyberspace has made itself felt. One reason that the conservative/liberal conflict is no longer so intense is that there are so many forums that they don't really have to hang out with each other. Of course, there are other reasons, too -- people got tired of the controversial topics, they got talked out, and they are no longer so shocking and upsetting to fundies as they once were. And, the administration hasn't taken any major action against anyone for their cyberspace activity in the last few years, which was a lot of the impetus for the angry raging that prevailed between 1996-2001. Also, I think it is very likely that some have dealt with the dissidents by taking a "leave them talking to themselves" strategy.

Anyway, these days I have tended to post to the forums I run -- just to keep them going, if nothing else. It seems like forever since I've posted to Talisman, which is the Baha'i liberal flagship, and I want to support it. Of course, a lot of my posting is reactive -- I respond to what's already going on, rather than starting threads. And, lately, I think twice about whether I really want to get into something heavy-duty. I've been veering towards talk.religion.bahai, just because it's such a casual place -- I don't necessarily have to be that articulate and profound. I try to take things to my own Unenrolled Bahai list, although it being a support group means that I don't so much bring up topics as share experiences; the Unenrolled Baha'is board on Beliefnet is broader, but equally tends to have quiet periods.

In such a situation, where there are so many options when I want to say something, the blog comes off worst -- as far as I know, it doesn't have that much of an audience, although it does have the advantage that it's not limited to any particular topic -- just whatever I feel like musing on at the time, but I feel less of an obligation to keep it going. The other advantage is that I can talk without having to deal with responses. But I pour so much of myself out elsewhere that I just never get around to posting here. I would guess that most really active bloggers aren't posting to forums much -- there's only so much time in a day.

Anyway, I don't know what I'm going to do about all this. The logical thing would be to abandon the slower or more difficult forums, and focus my attention on one or two. But each forum has its particular purpose, and an important one.

Part of it, too, is that I've changed -- I've been active in Baha'i cyberspace for four years now, and the last year has been a difficult one. In fact, when I think about it, it seems like each year out here has been more difficult than the last -- cyberspace is a rough place, far rougher than any face-to-face interaction would be. On the other hand, I've learned a tremendous amount, and done things I never thought I could do -- which is worth some bumps and bruises along the way.